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Seattle has new $286M plan to connect First Hill Streetcar to the South Lake Union Trolley via 1st Ave

1st Ave circa 2025

Like most things, the longer Seattle waits to build its downtown streetcar line, the more expensive it will get. Mayor Jenny Durkan put Seattle’s 1st Ave route back on track Thursday, announcing a new $286 million price tag for the planned Center City Connector to link the First Hill Streetcar and South Lake Union Trolley via 1st Ave. Meanwhile, there is still no word on planned optimization work for Broadway to speed up the route for the First Hill Streetcar as it shares the lanes with vehicular traffic.

When it finally goes into service in about six year, the 1st Ave streetcar shouldn’t face similar delays — it will have its own dedicated lane.

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“For a period of years, our downtown will be ‘under construction,’ and we will make historic investments in building a city of the future, like our new waterfront park, a new convention center, and a reborn Seattle Center Arena,” Durkan said in a statement on the revived plan. “As we reconnect downtown with our new Waterfront for All, we have the opportunity to create a downtown with fewer cars and where residents, workers, and visitors can walk, bike, and take transit. A unified streetcar route provides a unique opportunity to build on our investments for the next generation,” she said.

A map of the city’s streetcar future from the Seattle Streetcar Coalition

Planning for the downtown streetcar route has been on ice since last spring as cost estimates rose and issues with the plan for the line emerged that put its planned start of service in 2020 in doubt.

Durkan’s announcement wasn’t exactly a rallying cry but more of a challenge on what the city will have to pay get the new transit option moving. The new cost estimates line up around a new target for service to begin in 2025:

In March 2018, Mayor Jenny A. Durkan ordered an independent review of the Center City Connector following a series of reviews from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and media reports that found significant shortfalls with operating and capital costs. The initial independent review found that the C3 capital costs would be approximately $252.2 million, up from $197.7 million in the budget passed in 2017. KPMG and SDOT recommended additional engineering analysis and design work to review necessary design changes to integrate the full streetcar system, including, but not limited to, platform design, rail vehicle suitability (rail car length, weight, and dynamic envelope), and impact on maintenance facilities. Based on that analysis, the total design, construction, and integration costs for the C3 project – including SDOT, Seattle Public Utilities, and Seattle City Light – now would be approximately $286 million, an $88 million difference from the budget passed in 2017.

Groups including the Seattle Streetcar Coalition, the Downtown Seattle Association, and the Transportation Choices Coalition applauded the mayor’s announcement on how to move forward with the project.

Funding for the project is hoped to include a $75 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA funding schedule is part of the reason the new line isn’t expected to be ready to roll until 2025. The Seattle City Council — with incumbents serving out lame duck terms or preparing to mount defenses of their seats in the 2019 elections — will have to sort out any tradeoffs over the budget in the meanwhile.

The announcement from Durkan comes as the mayor completed the first year of her term adding a key new figure to her team at City Hall. Sam Zimbabwe, her pick to head the Seattle Department of Transportation, is touted as a “project delivery expert.”

Durkan and Zimbabwe will hopefully soon unstick a decision on speeding up the notoriously pokey First Hill Streetcar. Planners put forth the project early last year to streamline the streetcar’s route with a proposed four-block southbound “Business Access and Transit” lane on Broadway that would shave off three minutes of travel time and be part of a package of changes hoped to boost ridership by about 10% — 350 riders — per day.

But opposition from area businesses and property owners helped to put the project on the backburner — where it has remained. The changes would cost around $50,000 to $75,000 to implement.

The First Hill Streetcar opened in January 2016 to little fanfare after long delays and years of construction to begin service on the new line connecting Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill via First Hill. The 2.5-mile route shares streets with vehicular traffic and, as a result, is subject to slowdowns that also snarl buses and commuters in cars. A lower than expected 3,500 riders were riding the streetcar daily in 2018, according to SDOT.

With or without a speed boost on Broadway, Thursday’s announcement could put the city in line for around five miles of streetcar service by 2025 with 23 stops across South Lake Union, downtown, Pioneer Square, the ID, First Hill, and Capitol Hill.

For all practical purposes, it would be unusual for a Broadway rider to utilize the route from Capitol Hill all the way to South Lake Union and vice versa but the ease and dependability of the future streetcar arc through the city could open up new opportunities for commuters, students, shoppers, and tourists while adding yet another choice to help people simply trying to get around in the increasingly crowded city core.

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19 thoughts on “Seattle has new $286M plan to connect First Hill Streetcar to the South Lake Union Trolley via 1st Ave” -- All CHS Comments are held for moderation before publishing

  1. The picture depicting 2025 is mis-labeled. Madison never intersects with Spring. The spot where it might would be near the IHOP on Capitol Hill. The image depicts someplace downtown, maybe Madison and First?

  2. Durkan has no support for this plan in the city, but she’s pushing it. The streetcar is slower than a city bus to the same destination, has lower ridership, and costs multitudes more to build out. The projections that say ridership will increase once all the lines are connected is terrible data.

    Good news: the downtown connector will have its own lane. That’s about it for good news.

    This is nothing more than a city beautification project to make our area seem hip and new at a ridiculous cost. I expect that $285M to get higher.

      • Durkan received pressure from groups that were already invested in this project happening, of course they wanted it. When it was put on hold, they rallied. Support for the project overall is very low, due mainly to the high price tag, low ridership, and lack of necessity.

        I can definitely go against “data” in this case because they’re projections. What about the original projections on the ID line? Or the Broadway line? We have real data now that contradicts those original projections.

        The only hope I have is in the new SDOT director brought on specifically because of his experience in building a downtown streetcar.

  3. Both the Westlake line and the Broadway line are useless. I have regretted everytrip I take on the streetcar. I frequently look around to see who is walking along with me to track the speed of the train in comparison with other pedestrians and they always win.
    The streetcars are slower than rapid ride buses would be and they are so much more expensive, plus the ugly wires and dangerous rails. (Try biking down these lanes without getting your tire stuck in one of those gaps; a bike tire in a train rail is a mistake I will never make twice)

    • To be fair, it’s possible to beat almost any bus around Capitol Hill by walking — 2, 8, 11, 49. Fully agree that we should continue RapidRide in addition and the delays on the Madison line are unacceptable.

  4. It takes 45 minutes to get from Pioneer Square to Broadway on this thing. Unless your disabled or it’s icy, it is literally faster to walk between these two points

    • Untrue. I ride the First Hill line from Pioneer Square to Capital Hill station every day in the evening rush and trip time averages 25 min. There are of course occasional blockages, as with any bus line, but it is the height of hyperbole to state that it averages 45 min from end to end. If the streetcar had signal priority on Broadway they could probably shave 5 minutes off the travel time.

      Is it better than a bus line or should it even have been built in the first place? Probably not. But the streetcar is nowhere near as bad is claimed.

    • Once I was really drunk and rode street car from pioneer square back to capital hill. I felt pretty sober by the time I got there.

    • It’s not my normal commute but I’ve taken it probably 5 times. It’s *never* taken me 45 minutes. And it’s never. Even as slow as walking either.

      Not everyone who rides it goes from one end all the way to the other. The light rail wouldn’t help them.

  5. There a 40 million annual tourists and SLU/downtown are 2 biggest employment hubs- and where a higher proportion of workers use transit. The CCC-SLU is literally the only segment of this that is worthwhile. They should have built a trolley from King Street Station to Pike Place to SLU and called it a day. Instead the built the parts that get the least use.

  6. What’s the plan? Spend more money on the slowest possible transportation option out there! Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if they just had bus lanes and have bus style trolleys run the whole route?!?!

  7. Glad to see the Connector “extension” running out to the Seattle Center, which would compensate for Link skipping Belltown. A great addition to that would be a revived Counterbalance, reconnecting Lower and Upper Queen Anne.

  8. Frustrating that there isn’t an easy way to get from Capitol Hill to SLU easily, but I guess there isn’t really a feasible way to link the end of Cap Hill to the SLU track…?